Imagine all the universities you could attend, or careers you could pursue, or possible romantic partners whom you could date. From such variety, how can you choose?
I rather fell in love with this question early. I was an economics major for much of my time as an undergrad, and the answer from that perspective was that one maximizes utility. Figure out what's important to you and how likely it is that the various alternatives (which you've carefully enumerated) will yield that which is important.
Ah, but then I learned of the psychology of decision making, and was even fortunate enough to take courses from the late psychologist Amos Tversky. That maximizationideal of economists is so often impossible. Our futures are uncertain, our desires malleable, our choices indeterminate. So what is one to do?
I'm just back from a symposium on this issue. Sheena Iyengar (who has a pretty terrific TED talk if you'd like to hear her) discussed the consequences of having more and more choice. She emphasized that experts actually do better with more choice and spun this into the larger point that having more options might cause the most problems when the type of choice we're making is most difficult, such as when we are inexpert. (And how many of us have made sufficient mistakes in choosing colleges, careers, and spouses such that we are now expert?!) She argued that part of what makes our choices difficult is that we use them to define ourselves. How do you know who I am?; By my career, college, spouse. Left unasked by Iyengar...what if we find other ways to define ourselves? Might more choice then be less paralyzing?
Barry Schwartz (who also has a great TED talk you could watch) spoke of maximizers vs. satisficers. The former believe they need to make the best choice, the latter :"good enough" choices. Schwartz recalled the Ellsburg Paradox. Imagine two urns. One has 50 blue balls and 50 red. You get $10 if you choose a red ball, $ otherwise. The other urn has 100 balls, some blue, some red, but you don't know how many. You get the same outcomes for drawing a red or blue ball. Which do you prefer? Specifying a probability in the second choice is impossible. We don't have the information needed. If we don't know the probability, how can we maximize? He calls that second urn "radical uncertainty."; In how much of our lives is that second urn the one from which we draw? In choosing colleges, we might consider student/faculty ratios, school size, social life, cost, location, and a dozen other alternatives, some of which (e.g., social life) are wildly uncertain. Given that, how can we maximize? Now, maximizers sometimes make "objectively better choices." For instance, maximizers earn higher starting salaries in their first jobs than do satisficers. But...maximizers are also less content with their choices, wondering, for instance, if they could not have made even better choices. How are we to choose and to live? Do we prefer the extra money earned by the maximizers or the extra satisfaction of satisficers?
Finally Erin Sparks described new data about maximizing and the desire to delay decisions. First, well, maximizers prefer to delay decisions and they also prefer choices that allow them to change their mind. But there's an interesting separate line of research that once people commit, they like better that which they have chosen. In one study, Sparks had students rank 15 posters.They then were given their choice of the middling posters to take home, after which they re-ranked the posters. Satisficers increased their liking of the chosen poster immediately after choosing and liked it even more a week later. Maximizers? Well, no. They didn't come to like better the poster they chose. Perhaps maximizing leads to lives of failing to commit, thus living with constant mulling over of possibilities and the dissatisfaction that comes with that.
So what is one to do? Iyengar's answer is to maximize for the most important things, but to satisfice otherwise, pointing to such things as the higher starting salaries of maximizers. That would suggest that it would be difficult to commit to that which is most important in our lives and we would live with less satisfaction with our choices in those areas, but perhaps we would make objectively better choices. Schwartz's answer is the opposite--to satisfice particularly when it's important. He gave the example of chooosing a doctor. If we try to choose the best doctor, will we then keep looking for the faults with that doctor and fail to commit ourselves to a path toward recovery?; Perhaps we should find a good enough doctor, satisficing so that we can commit and garner the benefits of that commitment, the benefits of sticking to a course and the satisfaction that comes from convincing ourselves we've made the right choice.
It's interesting to consider the consequences of societal trends toward increased choice--lives of changing jobs, transferring schools, moving around the globe, obtaining relatively easy divorces. Do these trends make maximizers less likely to commit, for good (possibly making better choices) or for ill (possibly making people less satisfied with their choices and less likely to gain the benefits of commitment)?
Yes, I'm ending with that question, rather than an answer.
old post: Choices in an impossibly uncertain world